Prior to the modern homebrewing explosion, brewing was undertaken on a small scale in the kitchen of most households. As commercial brewing operations began to develop and expand in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the scale and complexity of equipment grew along with it. The pioneers of twentieth-century homebrewing scaled down much of this industrial equipment and the hobby became dominated by techies.

It can be a lot of fun to build a customized homebrewing setup. The brewing process is actually very simple. While you can purchase equipment and ingredient kits from homebrew stores, much of what you need for one-gallon batches can likely be found in your kitchen. As you get more into it, you may want to upgrade to a five-gallon kit for extract brewing and maybe even pursue more complex and timely all-grain brewing.

Simple Formula

Put simply, sugar + water + yeast + time = alcohol. You’ll probably want to add some extra flavoring ingredients but this is the core formula. Beer in modern Western culture is pretty much always made from grain, but traditionally was made from all manner of ingredients. Getting sugars from grains that can then be converted into alcohol takes a bit of know-how but isn’t terribly complex.

Most homebrewers start with malt extract, a syrupy concentrated liquid that has all the grain sugars you need. You can also get the sugar you need from molasses, sorghum, or dark brown sugar. If you want to make a beer that tastes like your favorite craft brew, I recommend going with malt extract, but you can always combine extract with any of the above ingredients. For water, use spring water or, if you trust your city water source, de-chlorinated water after you filter it, then boil it or set it out overnight for the chlorine to evaporate.

The Hops Factor

While hops are a necessity for beer to taste “proper” to modern drinkers, they were traditionally used very little, if at all. Hops have preservative qualities, can hide any off flavors, and can produce some nice tastes and aromas, but so can most herbs. The variety of hop varieties available to the homebrewer is astounding. I recommend starting with commonly available varieties such as Cascade, US Fuggle, or Mt. Hood. You can use herbs and spices in combination with (or instead of) hops. Traditional herbs used for bittering, flavor and preservative effects are mugwort, dandelion greens, cloves, black peppercorn, nutmeg, ginger, spruce tips, and yarrow. Use these all sparingly. Generally, 1/2 to 1 ounce of each per gallon is plenty.

What follows is a recipe for a simple, basic, herbal beer with brown sugar. The process for a hoppy grain-based beer will be the same, except for some minor areas that I’ll note. Instead of hops, use .3 ounces (a pinch will do) of dried mugwort or a couple of sprigs of fresh dandelion greens. For this recipe, we’ll also be adding two small lemons (leave these out for a “standard” beer).

Preparation Keys

Before starting, it’s important to clean and rinse everything that will be in contact with the cooled wort (unfermented beer) a few hours before you begin brewing. Many brewers stress sanitizing with chemicals. I’m not one of them. Maintaining a sterile environment in a home kitchen is nigh impossible. I simply wash everything with hot, soapy water and let it drip dry. Sometimes I will sterilize equipment with hot water. If you want to sanitize, there are many sanitizers available in homebrew shops. Bleach (1/2 teaspoon per gallon of warm water) will suffice, but be sure to rinse your equipment well and dispose of the bleach-water solution in a responsible manner.

Let’s Get Started

Warm one gallon of water, add sugar or extract, herbs and lemon, and bring to a boil. Most extract-based hopped-beer recipes call for a one-hour boil. You’ll only need to boil about half an hour for an herbal beer. If you’re using a beer kit, add the hops and other ingredients according to the hops schedule. Some will go in at the start of the boil, but generally, you’ll be adding them the last 3-15 minutes. Any hops added from 15 minutes (or earlier) prior to cutting off heat will contribute to bittering. Hops added in the last 3-5 minutes will provide aroma.

If using extract, molasses or sorghum, it is essential that you stir constantly during this process, touching the bottom of the pot to keep the extract from burning on the bottom until you bring it to a steady, rolling boil. Clean any spillage immediately. You won’t enjoy cleaning it when it’s caked on and dry.

Cool The Wort

At this point, it’s important to lower the temperature of the wort, or unfermented beer, to 60-75 degrees F. as quickly as possible. Leaving it to cool on its own gives bacteria an opportunity to cause souring. It will still be safe to drink but you may not enjoy it. To cool the wort, place the hot pot into a larger pot or sink filled with ice and cold water. Monitor with a thermometer or simply wait until it feels warm to the touch.

Next, strain the wort through a sieve or cheesecloth into your fermentation vessel. If you happen to have a hydrometer, you can check the original gravity (OG), which you will later measure against the final gravity (FG) to determine the approximate alcohol content. This recipe will give you a beer of 5-7 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). If you want a higher alcohol level, continue to stir in additional sugar (or honey) dissolved in some warm water while monitoring your hydrometer until the wort reaches the alcohol level you want.

Wake Up The Yeast

Next, add yeast by sprinkling it over the surface of the wort. Stir, shake or swirl to aerate and “wake up” the yeast. If using a bucket, simply cover it with a cloth or put on the lid with the airlock in place. (Note: an airlock lets carbon dioxide released during fermentation escape the fermenter, but does not allow in oxygen, which causes off-putting flavors). If fermenting in a one-gallon jug, place the cork and airlock in the opening. Fill the airlock half-full with water.

Ferment And Bottle

Set the container in a warm, dark corner (60 to 75 degrees F.). The yeast and wort should start fermenting vigorously within a few hours. In about a week, fermentation will be minimal. At this point you can transfer it to a secondary fermenter (a clean jug with an airlock) and let it sit a week longer if you desire a highly clarified beer.

Otherwise, about 10 days from Brew Day, it’s time to bottle. You can bottle straight from your fermentation vessel using a siphoning tube. Be sure to keep it an inch or two from the bottom to avoid the lees (yeast residue), or transfer it with a siphoning tube to a vessel with a spigot. Either way, warm 1/2 cup white, corn, or brown sugar, or honey in a cup of water and stir it into the beer. This is called “priming” and will enable the beer to continue fermenting slightly in the bottle, resulting in the carbonation you would expect upon opening a store-bought beer. Allow it to settle an hour or two before bottling and then bottle, cap, store in a cool, dark area, and wait at least a week to ensure full carbonation.

Brewin’ Gear

  • 2- to 3-gallon cooking pot (stainless steel or enamel)
  • 3- to 5-gallon food-grade plastic bucket
  • Lid, towel or cheesecloth to cover the bucket
  • 4- to 6-foot length of food-grade vinyl tubing
  • A spigot and gaskets for bottling (You’ll need to drill a hole in your bucket if you don’t find one with a spigot installed.)
  • 1-gallon glass or plastic jug (This can be used along with or instead of the bucket.)
  • Bottles (Non screw-top if using a bottle capper; otherwise, find flip-top bottles, use bottles of any size with screw-top lids, or simply use a 1-gallon jug with a screw-on lid.)
  • 1 stirring spoon

You won’t necessarily need the following equipment to make a basic batch of beer, but after you’ve made a few you may find yourself wanting to expand your brewing inventory.

  • 1 airlock and rubber stopper with a hole to fit the airlock (You can purchase these from a homebrew store and drill a hole in your bucket lid just large enough to give the stopper a snug fit; a bucket from homebrew kits may already have a spigot.)
  • Cork with hole/bung that fits snugly in the opening of your jug, which in turn holds your airlock snugly
  • Bottle capper and new caps (These will have to come from a homebrew store or from a homebrewer.)
  • Thermometer
  • Hydrometer (for measuring alcohol level)
  • Funnel and sieve

Brewin’ Ingredients

Here are the very basic ingredients for a 1-gallon batch of beer:

  • 1-2 pounds liquid or dry malt extract of your choosing (Light malt will make lighter beers; dark malt will make darker beers.) Or 3 1/2 to 4 cups molasses, sorghum, dark brown sugar, or any combination of these (for instance: 1 pound of extract and 2 cups of brown sugar or molasses)
  • At least 1-2 ounces of medium-to-high alpha (higher=more bitter) hops or as many hops, herbs and spices as you dare
  • 1/2 package (or 1 teaspoon) brewer’s yeast or bread yeast
  • 1/2 cup white sugar, corn sugar, cane sugar, or honey for bottle-carbonation
  • 1 gallon of quality drinking water
  • Bottles (non screw-top if using a bottle capper; otherwise, find flip-top bottles, use bottles of any size with screw-top lids, or simply use a 1-gallon jug with a screw-on lid)
  • 1 stirring spoon

Hops To The Rescue

In 1516, the Reinheitsgebot, or “beer purity law” was issued in Ingolstadt, Germany. Decreed for various reasons pertaining to commerce, politics, and the desire to “protect” drinkers from the effects of hallucinogenic herbs that were common additives to beer, the law changed how beer was produced globally. According to it, only water, hops and barley (yeast was later added) could be used in making beer. Since all other herbs and plants had now been tossed aside, hops was ready for its day in the limelight.

Due to its preservative qualities, hops made it possible to produce a lower alcohol beer than was common in the past—one of the many reasons that adding them was vehemently opposed by drinkers in nearly every country in which they were used as they spread from Germany to the rest of the world.

The Hop Plant

The hop plant, a member of the Cannabaceae family (guess what other plant belongs in that family?), is a climbing bine that produces flowers. The flowers (hops) are used for brewing, giving beer its bitterness and floral aroma. When brewing with hops, start by following a recipe closely until you learn to understand the effect different varieties can have. Don’t be afraid to experiment though, particularly in 1-2 gallon batches. Each variety available to brewers is designated by an alpha and beta bitterness percentage. These determine the level of bitterness that will be imparted, expressed as International Bitterness Units (IBU).

The alpha percentage is more important to pay attention to, as the beta contribution is minimal. Generally, the higher percentage alphas contribute more to bittering and somewhat to aroma, while the lower percentages impart more aroma. This varies for each variety, so do some research online or pick up a homebrewing book with a hop-reference chart to determine which varieties you want to go with. If you desire to brew an herbal beer but still want to impart somewhat of a hoppy flavor, add 1/4 to 1/2 ounce per one gallon (1-2 ounces per 5 gallons is acceptable as well). You may only get a hint of the bittering and aromatic effect, but the hops will also impart their preservative and spoilage-inhibiting qualities. Always remember—the cardinal rule with hops is that a little bit goes a long way!

Common Homebrewing Mistakes

Before you venture on your brewing journey, consider some of the most frequent blunders that novice (and even experienced) homebrewers make. As with anything worth doing, a little preparation goes a long way.

  • Not having all your tools at the ready when you begin. Brewing is a multistep process where timing is everything. Having everything you’ll need laid out in advance (and properly sanitized) is essential to keeping your operation running smoothly and safely.
  • Not taking notes on each (early) brew. Keeping good records of any ways that you deviated from a recipe, as well as taking stock of what exactly you liked and didn’t like about the final flavor or carbonation level of each brew, can keep you from making the same bad brew again—and conversely, be the ticket to figuring out your personal perfect brew.
  • Brewing too big or complex. Just as a first time baker is better off attempting a recipe for drop cookies than trying to make individual Baked Alaskas for a party of thirty, so is the novice home brewer smart to start small and simple and work his way up to more complex concoctions. There will be time for experimenting and larger batches later on.

This article is from a previous issue of The New Pioneer. Grab your copy at

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